State leaves students high and dry

Thousands of poor black university students are set to become dropouts this month because the state loan scheme has once again failed to foot the bill for their studies.

Although some students may manage to afford registration fees, they will start the year facing severe financial pressure, leaving many hungry and lacking adequate accommodation.

The Mail & Guardian previously reported that the government’s R9.5-billion allocation to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) for 2015 is not adequate to address the severe deficit in the loan programme (“Nzimande’s budget snubs poor university students”, July 23 2014).

Now universities have told thousands of eligible students that loans will not be extended to them this year owing to a lack of NSFAS funds.

The M&G has seen approval lists from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and Walter Sisulu University. Both indicate that thousands of students have been denied a place because of insufficient funds.

Jaco van Schoor, deputy vice-chancellor for finance at UJ, told the M&G that 4 378 of the university’s students who had qualified academically had not received NSFAS funds, and thus could not get a place at the institution. This number includes both returning and new students.

“UJ is deeply concerned about the significant number of academically deserving students who are excluded because of inadequate funding,” Van Schoor said.

An annual hustle
Mbuso Sikhakhane, a third-year marketing student at UJ who is among those who did not manage to secure NSFAS funding, said he is used to the yearly “hustle”.

“It’s only last year that I got NSFAS [funding] without any problems. Every other year I’ve had to appeal their decision not to fund me. I’m appealing again this year.”

Adam Habib, vice-chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand, which this week had allocated NSFAS funding to 2 090 out of 22 568 applicants, described the shortage as a crisis.

At the Gauteng-based Vaal University of Technology (VUT), returning students learned this week that they had to have passed at least 68% of their subjects to secure a loan. Students complained that this is a new requirement that is designed to exclude them.

For Desiree Pitso from Sebokeng, a human resource management student at VUT, this may mean the end of her academic career. “From nowhere, NSFAS changed the percentage of the subjects that should be passed from 50%. They are telling us that we have to pay for our own registration fees, which we don’t have.

“I’m afraid I have to drop out this year. I’m so hurt because NSFAS was my only hope. I’m now going job hunting to try pay [NSFAS] back so that someone else can get education.”

Battle from the start
Without providing details of how many students had been excluded, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University expressed concern about unfunded students, many of whom battle to pay their registration fees.

“Many of the students turned down by NSFAS struggle to find funds to support themselves during the academic year,” said university spokesperson Roslyn Baatjies.

“This leads to difficulties fulfilling the academic requirements because of inadequate nutrition, unsatisfactory living conditions and transport difficulties.”

At a press briefing at UJ last week, the M&G asked Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande what he made of the plight of such students. “We’re concerned about students who are unable to pay. This is a matter that we’re paying attention to as the department,” he said.

He admitted that NSFAS’s policy of funding those whose families have an annual income of less than R122?000 excludes many students.

“We’re concerned about that because a family that earns R150?000 per annum, for instance, is not a rich family. Certainly they cannot afford to pay for university education. We’re looking into that matter.”

NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo told the M&G the scheme is doing the best it can with limited funds. “It is a well-known fact, and this was confirmed by the 2010 NSFAS review, that the need for financial aid across the system is far greater than the resources available.

“[The] R9.5?billion by any measure is a lot of money and as NSFAS we think it should go a long way in assisting a lot of poor and disadvantaged yet academically deserving students.”

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